A Brief History of Queer Coding in Film: Part 2

Part 1 covered how queer cinema was before the Hays code, then how its queerness was made more subtle and subversive by necessity through the 60s. As mentioned in that post, this is the faintest of overviews, but there will be plenty of links to other topics in the third/final post, and I’d love to hear your additions and/or arguments in the comments.

This post will discuss:

4. Post-Hays
5. 80s-00s
6. Current Coding

Part 3 will discuss the ripples the Code – both its direct messages and the coded responses to its strictures – have created through media, society, and fandom, including shipping and fanfic, how blockbusters are still far less queer than reality, and the relationship between queerness and villainy on screen.


Of course you have queer and camp classics such as La Cage Aux Folles and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all of which remain influential in queer culture as well as mainstream, even if often the mainstream weren’t aware of the films and/or where the influence was coming from for years. Some films such as Cabaret were set during the period Hays controlled screens, and were both dealing with explicit queer themes, and comparing the anti-sex, anti-queer censorship with aspects of fascism (more about period queer films in later sections).

But we’re here to talk about coding.

Weirdly, post-Hays films were sometimes worse than Hays-era films, both creatively and in how they deal with LGBTQIA+ topics and characters. Yes, films were now ‘allowed’ to be explicit about who was queer, but they were often still written by straight or closeted writers, in a studio and social environment where stigmas about queer people were still overwhelmingly negative. The result was often queer characters and thoughts about them were more open, but often tended hard towards the negative (at least in films which weren’t specifically around queerness, such as the The Birdcage and underground or cult classics).

We’ll end up talking about a lot more movies from this era in Part 3, when we talk about queer villains. When filmmakers and ‘broad appeal’ or ‘family’ movies presented queer topics or people positively, they were often attacked by many including the Catholic church, which held a lot of sway in American cinema and European film-powerhouse countries Italy, England, and to some extent France. That last tidbit is why I find it delicious one of my favourite queer-coded horrors is also one which most famously grapples with Catholicism: The Exorcist.

(excerpted from my longer post about Father Damien’s queerness.)

Priest Damien’s backstory is dripped out through the film: we learn he was a talented boxer, who – with no concussion injury, no massive win or demoralising loss, not even a statement about feeling a strong calling from God – quit at his peak to pursue the Priesthood.

Damien is having a crisis of faith, and guilt for having abandoned his mother (let’s not forget part of the subtext for queer men fifty years ago was ‘mommy issues’). Damien struggles with many literal and figurative demons, but it’s clear one of them is the stigma society places on his sexuality. The demon uses gay slurs towards Damien, at one point saying “Shove it up your ass you faggot”. (In some versions this was changed to “Shut your face you faggot,” yay censorship!) 

His feelings for men intensified as he progressed in the order, surrounded by men. Damien forms a strong relationship with his fellow priest Father Dyer. They drink together, they are obviously close, Damien mentions to Dyer his doubts and crises of faith, and when the get drunk Dyer takes off Damien’s shoes – an intimate act, which in the bible intimates sex.

Even though the Hays act had been officially repealed, at this point in mainstream cinema, both members of gay couples – even if there has only been longing and not consumation – are not allowed to survive the film, *especially* when that film is horror. Dyer is left bereft and celibate, while Damien is killed. When Damien dies, a heartbroken Dyer gives last rites, and then is given Damien’s pendant.

What’s really interesting is Damien manages to fulfil the trope of ‘killing the queer character,’ but he also sacrifices himself and dies a somewhat heroic, Christ-figure death, literally taking on the Devil and dying in the process to allow the Innocent to live.

The same year as The Exorcist (1970), Italy made The Conformist, a film about a man’s political compromise and much more, which also happens to be full of queer women slouching around in impeccably tailored outfits, smoking and dancing aggressively at each other; in other words, queerness in cinema which isn’t *about* being queer.

In summation, the three biggest / most immediate positive changes in post-Hays cinema were: the explosion of queer romps (even if many didn’t become part of mainstream consciousness until decades later), the ability to grapple with queer repression in more complex ways, and the growth of queer characters in stories not about queerness.

THE 80s – 00s

The 80s started seeing more positive mainstream representations, though plenty were coded whether through tradition, coyness, source material, fear of censorship, studio trepidation about losing money, producer interference, etc. 

More mainstream films toyed with crossdressing and drag (Victor/Victoria, Tootsie) though both had been around in one form or another for ages (Morocco, Some Like it Hot).

Some mainstream films finally acknowledged gay relationships, struggles being closeted, legal and civil rights struggles, AIDS, (Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain). We also start seeing more positive portrayals of out queer characters (The Birdcage, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) even if many of the actors weren’t queer, and/or felt they couldn’t be out in their personal lives because of stigma. You’ve also got films like the delicious But I’m a Cheerleader, which directly skewers queer suppression in life as in cinema. 

Some films like The Colour Purple which were ‘already about’ a societal issue threw in queerness as a weird sort of bonus, but even those still toned things down. A lot of films which weren’t ‘issues’ films, or didn’t have unhappy endings (Brokeback again, Boys Don’t Cry), still chose to keep their love stories coded.

But some films weren’t coded so much as not explicit; operating in plain sight but without putting so many words to it, especially the exact words the ‘mainstream’ would need, like flashing neon signs. (Films in the last few years, such as First Cow and Power of the Dog, still do this, and we’ll get to them.) My Own Private Idaho is a seminal example, as is My Beautiful Launderette, which uses carwashing and motorcycle riding as euphemisms.

Along those lines is one of the four ‘syllabus films’ listed in Part 1: Fried Green Tomatoes, aka the reason both Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker will always be welcome at the gay table. The film is not willing (or able, according to some) to be as explicit as its source material about Ruth and Idgie’s romance, so in lieu of onscreen sex they have a symbolic food fight, instead of nuptial vows they declare their strong feelings in a court scene – still in front of the whole town, like a wedding would be – and the infamous honey scene involves Idgie braving a thousand bee stings to bring Ruth a honeycomb, then Ruth dipping her fingers in a jar of honey and licking them while looking Idgie in the eyes, the whole scene somehow more explicit than plenty of R-rated movies.


It’s true queerness has become more mainstream and its declaration more overt. Moonlight and Kajillionaire and Lilting acknowledge stigmas of social and cinematic origin but strive to subvert or eschew them, while hard genre like San Junipero and The Old Guard swaddle queer sex and romance in sci-fi conventions and sonic booms, time travel and lazergun fights. There’s a whole subgenre of queer romance catering to a younger crowd: Love, Simon and The Half of It with their leads, Booksmart and Unpregnant with their best-friend characters; essentially “basic teen romcoms and roadtrips, but gayer.” 

Still, both film and TV heavily code queer attraction and romance, and especially sex. K-drama specialises in coding sex, and while characters are almost never explicitly queer, especially main characters, there’s plenty of coy intimations. For example in Twenty-Five Twenty-One two female characters are secretly actually each others’ internet friends a la You’ve Got Mail, and their first meeting is an adorable exchange with one offering the other an umbrella to shield her from the rain at the happily accepted cost of getting wet herself. Their next in-person encounter is a loaded slo-mo sequence where they lock eyes across the room before facing off in an athletic tournament. Lest you think I’m reading into it, one of them just HAPPENS to be played by Kim Tae-ri, star of one of the hottest and most explicit queer psychodramas of the last decade.

Ahem, we digress.

Point is, though we’re 100 years on from the first films which actually depicted queer romance and/or love and/or kissing on screen, plenty of movies still code their queerness. Some coding is for fun (a little ‘will they won’t they!’ holdout is good for the soul), and some is enforced by networks, producers, country S&P, ideas of what the audience will tolerate, etc. Some coding, like in the newest Little Women film, is acknowledging the various levels of coding in the many interpretations and adaptations which have come before.

In fact, though some period films revel in ability to be explicit, most code things in some way or another, for a wide variety of reasons; to mimic the times, to mimic the films of the times, to play with the audience. Movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire revel in historical and foreign melodrama without hiding anything, whereas Carol takes a much different approach by mirroring how queerness in certain social circles didn’t speak its name, even as the film views that society through a modern cinematic lens. There’s a whole subgenre of period films which are set in the time of the Hays code but subvert it or play with it, such as 8 Women; set in the 1950s, this 2002 Christmas murder comedy which [no spoilers] plays with the concept of queer villains while also letting us see certain classical French actresses – who worked during the Hays code, no less – get hot and heavy together on screen: a true win-win. You could rank the film from subtext to text: Far From Heaven at a 1, Call Me By Your Name a 10.

The Power of the Dog speaks mostly in obvious visual metaphors of rubbing a saddle and pounding fenceposts and 800 shots of rope-braiding, and though it eventually makes its queerness unmissably obvious, it never makes it explicit, just as its characters never would have named their intentions and affections aloud.

Recently First Cow [spoilers ahead] has been read as two surveyor friends just being pals . . . who lived together, cooked and stole and risked it all for each other, never expressed interest in anyone else, and died in each others’s arms. And while of course Reichart is playing with the historical ‘buddy westerns’ such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Thelma and Louise, let’s me clear those are also films which explore sexual and/or romantic tensions, but First Cow goes even further, clearly a romantic story in every sense of the word. Just guys being pals, risking life and limb for each other, arguing and being intimate and moving in together and feeding each other bites of delectable griddlecakes and being buried in the same grave.

Queer stories, like straight romances, do not require on-screen sex . . . the problem with that being, sometimes, many who don’t want to see queer stories will then insist stories aren’t queer. Films sometimes feels like a Rorschach test, where straight people see what they want, and queer people see what they want. While not every depiction of close, intimate friendship should be assumed to be “in love,” (more on that Part 3!), nor should we need sex scenes or makeout sessions to read a relationship as queer, especially if we want to embrace the full definition of queerness which includes asexual romantic relationships.

What all have in common is acknowledging historical coding one way or another. Even if the film themselves are clearly queer – or, as in the case of San Junipero, flip between worlds and situations where characters and/or stories are coded and ones where they are able to be open – the hundreds of signals of various degrees which have been codified over time still show up.

No matter how aware of it they are, writers, directors, actors, designers, and everyone making queer stories are working with wardrobe, dialogue, or homages-to-meet-cutes from decades of work which had to be much more coy, and in doing so strongly shaped not just film queer and ‘straight’, but all society.

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  1. […] in film pre-Hays, exploration of what the Hays Code was and its broad impact on the film industry. Part 2 covered what ‘queer coding’ looked like in films post-Hays to […]

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